Are hybrid offices and remote working beneficial for the environment and does it save energy?
By Varun Bodhi
When Covid-19 restrictions first hit the globe, changes in the business world were mostly negative and the downfall of many smaller entities was imminent. While the lockdown rules were a hefty challenge for everyone and caused a lot of mental fatigue, one of the primary benefits which came from it was the immediate positive effect on the environment.
With fewer business operating and reduced vehicles, ships, planes and other energy draining vessels being a factor, the air and water quality significantly increased. A study by Nature Climate Change found that the daily global carbon dioxide emissions decreased by 17 percent and pollutant nitrogen dioxide significantly dropped by 20 to 40 percent in the U.S., Western Europe and China.
Many of China’s most polluted cities experienced reduced pollution, along with other polluted countries such as India and Brazil which witnessed clearer skies.
While the economy may have not been on the same beneficial trajectory, the environment was better than ever. Now, many countries have eased Covid restrictions yet not everyone is back in office as working hybrid has become the preferred method, so the questions arises. . . if a reduction in commuting created a better environment, is hybrid/remote working beneficial for the environment?
How much energy does hybrid and remote working save?
The general conception is that if there’s less cars on the road as a result of people working from home, then we save energy and the environment reaps the reward – except it’s not that simple.
When looking at the advantages and disadvantages from an analytical standpoint, majority of the benefits are not environment related, however there are of course some environmental benefits in terms of hybrid work.
Here are the environmental benefits according to a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information:
- A reduction or zero commuting time: fewer cars are on the road.
- Reduced traffic congestion (up to 20% in USA): less cars on the road during the peak hour of travelling means people driving to work will arrive faster and won’t need to stop as much, thereby reducing emissions.
- Less office space related energy consumption: with fewer employees in the office, the amount of energy used will decline.
Saving paper is one of the biggest non-energy related benefits for the environment. When employees are in the office, there will always be more printing regardless of the document being available as a soft copy. If a complete transition to working from home was in place and everything was kept online, then 247 trillion sheets of paper per year could be saved.
There are other benefits such as increased productivity, lower exposure to illness at work, saving clothing cost and other reasons, but in terms of energy expenditure the list is short. In the same study, the list of disadvantages was much greater, with some of the biggest ones including:
- Increased energy usage at home for lighting, heating and ventilation.
- More home office equipment may be required which will take extra energy.
- Potential increase in non-commute trips as a result of increased availability of car.
- Potential increase in commute distance for hybrid workers as some often relocate further from their worksite.
While this issue isn’t prevalent with remote workers, the complication which arises with hybrid is the necessity of purchasing double the amount of equipment – for the office, and for home.
A correlation of this can be noted during fourth quarter of 2020. Research by Gartner had found a global increase in computer shipments, with 79.4 million being shipped in total which results in a 10.7 percent increase from the prior corresponding period.
Because of this we are stuck with a mixed picture.
While reduced commuting to the office means lesser production of carbon dioxide, at the same token, there is an increase in energy usage at home.
Most studies indicate that a total shift towards working from home as opposed to hybrid will create a significantly greener environment, however this doesn’t come without its strong impact on the economy.
Public transport, café’s, office building landlords and many other industries heavily rely on people coming into an office space. While people also argue that a complete remote setting will also mean people can shift from urban to rural areas, resulting in lower costs of living and less overpopulation in city areas, what's overlooked is how much businesses will suffer.
The cost of renting a business space in the CBD is very expensive, and having far less consumers in the area will create a loss in sales. Although it can be speculated that prices will drop due to fewer people coming to the city, it's too big of a step to take because of the unknowns.
For now the general consensus is that complete remote working will significantly benefit the environment, but have a negative impact on the economy, while hybrid offices consume around the same energy but may improve air and water quality whilst being safer for the economy.
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